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Hard to have justice in 52 seconds per case

The much-maligned Citizens Review Board has nothing on grand juries.

The Charlotte-Mecklenburg citizens panel that reviews allegations around police misconduct was overhauled late last year after the Observer found that it had heard 79 cases in its lifetime and always sided with police.

Just 79? Grand juries in Mecklenburg County hear hundreds of cases every week and side with prosecutors almost every single time.

As the Observer’s Michael Gordon reported on Sunday, a Mecklenburg grand jury one day last month heard 276 cases in about four hours and handed down 276 indictments. The week before, another Mecklenburg grand jury heard 277 cases and handed down 276 indictments. The lone exception that proved the rule was police officer Randall Kerrick, who shot and killed an unarmed Jonathan Ferrell. (The subsequent grand jury indicted Kerrick on voluntary manslaughter charges.)

276 cases in four hours. In other words, the grand jurors heard testimony, asked any questions they had, conferred and voted that there was probable cause to indict – in an average of 52 seconds per case. By all accounts, those two days last month represent typical caseloads, not unusual ones.

It is typical for a single defendant to face multiple counts, and that could make the time spent on each case less egregious. But the data suggest that even so, jurors are speeding through cases at an irresponsibly rapid rate. The statistics – combined with anecdotes from other grand jurors, prosecutors and defense attorneys – make clear that grand juries in Mecklenburg and many if not all other jurisdictions in North Carolina are mere rubber stamps.

North Carolina’s grand juries are descendants of a system created almost 1,000 years ago in England. Eighteen regular citizens meet and decide whether there is enough evidence to show “probable cause” for a trial.

Their purpose is to give a defendant some little bit of protection against overzealous prosecutors. There’s no reason to think that protection exists in North Carolina.

Peter Gilchrist, Mecklenburg’s former district attorney of 36 years, agrees.

“They really are a rubber stamp, but they are a required rubber stamp,” Gilchrist told Gordon. “It could be time to replace it.”

No lawyers or judges participate in the hearing. A police officer or other witness typically lays out his evidence against the suspect and the jurors vote to indict. The defendant is not there; his lawyer is not there; no defense witnesses are there. No one is there to present any exculpatory evidence. No wonder indictments are the rule.

No court official is present, and no transcripts are kept. So there is no record of what evidence was presented.

Other states have considered or carried out a number of reforms. About half don’t employ grand juries at all. Others allow the defendant or his attorney to testify.

North Carolina’s legislature, which would have to approve any changes, should set up a study committee to consider these and other reforms that could improve North Carolina’s system.

It’s hard to generate much public sympathy for suspected criminals, and the truth is that there is probable cause to indict in most cases. A grand jury, though, should see its role not as expediting indictments but as being a neutral judge of whether probable cause exists. If it’s worth the time and expense of having a system at all, it’s worth doing right.

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The Charlotte Observer welcomes your comments on news of the day. The more voices engaged in conversation, the better for us all, but do keep it civil. Please refrain from profanity, obscenity, spam, name-calling or attacking others for their views.

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